My Turn: Fighting the last war


Published: 5/17/2021 9:02:30 AM

The concept that nations are always preparing for the last war is nothing new. It’s only remarkable that as the 21st century progresses, that lesson has yet to be learned.

Past examples are abundant: During the American Civil War, troops marched across open fields in Napoleonic formations only to be mowed down by long-range artillery and the rifled musket. Even such brilliant field commanders as Lee and Grant failed to heed the warnings as they threw lives away at Gettysburg and Cold Harbor.

Both sides eventually adapted but their European military counterparts did not. At the beginning of World War I, before the combatants settled into trench warfare, the French hurled their forces against their German foes entrenched behind barbed wire and armed with machine guns. The French were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, not helped by wearing bright-red pantaloons which made them easy targets.

The French response to World War I was to prepare for it 15 years after it ended by building the Maginot Line, a string of static fortifications. The Line was quite imposing but for one fatal drawback. It couldn’t move. World War II, a war of blitzkrieg mobility, rendered it obsolete within a week when German tanks and dive bombers crashed through to conquer France.

Before Americans scoff at the behavior of their confreres, it should be acknowledged that the United States has committed the same sin — not once, but repeatedly.

The U.S. prepared for the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies by strengthening the elements that worked so well in World War II. Fleets of tanks, an armada of aircraft carriers and submarines, an Air Force of intercontinental bombers and supersonic fighter planes. If all else failed, there was always the nuclear arsenal. American military planners anticipated the mother of all battles to be fought and decided on the lowland corridors of the Fulda Gap in central Germany.

And then came the Vietnam War. All the massive sophisticated firepower of the world’s leading superpower was helpless before an army of men dressed in black pajamas and riding to war on bicycles. The Soviet Union endured the same harsh lesson a decade later in Afghanistan, thwarted by tribesmen living no differently than their ancestors in the Middle Ages.

And still America refused to learn. Billions more were spent on more modern aircraft, tanks and ships, some of which looked as though they were designed by science fiction writers. They too were rendered impotent on Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation was brought low by 19 men armed with razor blades. That error was compounded years later in Iraq when IEDs, crude roadside bombs triggered by a cellphone, wrested defeat from the jaws of an almost certain victory.

The American military arsenal is now equipped with such wonders as the F-35 fighter plane, which cost nearly a trillion dollars to produce. Remember that the next time the Republicans tell you there’s no money for Social Security and Medicare. The F-35 is a true wonder. It employs more computer technology than several Third World countries combined, can pirouette in midair, recite a Shakespearean sonnet and cook a five-course gourmet dinner all at once.

It’s also useless against the next war American might have to fight. A war that will be decided in cyberspace.

Americans got a nasty reality check recently when the 5,500-mile long Colonial Pipeline got shut down due to a computer hack by a ransomware gang called DarkSide. The ease with which this was done is a warning that a simple computer virus can melt the entire American electrical grid, knock out its computer infrastructure, cripple its banking industry or worse, render into silence Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

As are other options. In the acclaimed series, “Madam Secretary,” the fictional character, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, accuses her Chinese counterpart, Ming Chen, of initiating a cyberattack against the United States. Ming is one cool customer. He tells McCord, “Madame Secretary, when it’s time for China to come after the United States, it won’t be with missiles or cyberattacks. We will merely call in our loans.” Ming is correct. As of this writing, the United States is in debt to China to the tune of $1,100,000,000,000 ($1.1 trillion.)

An amount that America nearly spends on its annual military budget. While a portion is rightfully spent on Veterans benefits and VA care, too much is wasted on the defense industry so they can continue to prepare for the last war.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for 44 years and is a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He lives in Taos, New Mexico with his wife, Lisa and dog, Cody.

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